OK – so if you are going to be isolated, you might as well be isolated to your workshop. Except, of course – the workshop is not looking for the moment like the kind of shop I want to be isolated in. It’s truly a mess.
So how did I get here you ask? Well, I don’t tend to beat myself up over any situation I get myself into – it’s more of an amusement to ask the question and maybe a chance for a lesson learned – hopefully not one that I will have to learn again if I can figure out how to avoid it in future. The answer to the question this time is a bit complex, but not hard to understand: several commissions landing at the same time as we launch a new line of products (our PlayBall game boards); our coming into a large collection of wood from a long time woodworker who is retiring and (urgently) moving from his home; a chance opportunity to get another large quantity of wood from a local museum (from disassembled weaving looms); and then there’s a little pandemic thrown in for good measure sucking the energy out of me for any normal Spring cleaning. And all of this six months from when we hoped to build our new wood storage/ solar kiln (more to come soon).
So the shop has become a bit of a dumping ground and there are at least six projects underway, several buried under the rubble somewhere. Where to start, where to start? OK, so this is the setup. The next few blogs will chronicle what I hope will be an incredible transition to the workshop of my dreams. Better still, the workshop of YOUR dreams! Feel free to throw in ideas about how to organize this effort. Wish me luck.
Our family of seven had, predictably, diverse tastes for food and drink. One of the few choices that we all could agree on was pasta and so it was made a lot in our family home when I was growing up. I asked my Mom one day how she knew when the pasta was ready. “Ah, the pasta test,” Mom exclaimed. She quickly liberated a strand of noodle with a fork and with a deft flick of the wrist sent it flying across the kitchen hitting the fridge and landing on the floor. “Not ready yet,” she declared. A few minutes later the same activity rendered a strand that stuck quite firmly to the fridge. “Good to go,” announced my mother. I have since learned more refined methods of testing pasta for firmness and stickiness, but the lesson stayed with me.
“Stickiness” is also a term in vogue in modern marketing, describing the ability of a product, service or message to stay with people – to stick or make a lasting impression that will bring them back to the product, service, website, etc. As we elevate our attention to ChezCraft as a full-time endeavour, the question of finding the right mix of products and services to hold consumer attention has become a more frequent discussion. For the past few years we have experimented with numerous product lines and services ranging from production crafts to fine art to commission work. While this has in part paralleled our continuing development of artisan skills, it has also included a little of “throwing stuff” at the market to see what sticks.
The questions around the right product line are perplexing: is it better to hit the market with a small set of high-quality, high value offerings or will a wide range of products with attendant scope of prices present the reach to attract a market large enough to sustain sales and profits? What is the most efficient way to use the limited resources of a small artisan company like ours? And, how does the choice of broad versus narrow product lines impact the reputation of the company? To pursue another food-based analogy, the question is often whether you would rather have a large slice of a small pie or a small piece of a large pie.
My partner and I believe that the long-term objective would be to establish a strong enough reputation to maintain a fairly tight set of signature products and services. The strategy at that point would be to effectively reach enough people with that particular palate to make it profitable – to own a larger slice of a smaller pie. In many ways this aligns well to our values of minimizing waste, by giving people a more specific thing that we believe they want, rather than just pushing out a plethora of products and hoping someone will want them.
Finding the right level of “stickiness” may continue to be a bit of a hit-or-miss effort for another while. Thankfully, we don’t believe it will risk the danger of hot flying pasta.
I have, lately, been reading Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens – a Brief History of Mankind” – a fascinating story about our evolution from simple and unspectacular members of the ape family to become the most powerful, dangerous, and innovative creatures on the planet. Imagining Harari’s description of Neanderthals and early sapiens who made tools (and weapons) with wood and stone, I can’t help but wonder if after making that first stone spear or cutting instrument, that early human might have next thought “maybe I can make a jig for that”? Or “Where can I find a new sharpening device for that”?
I am not alone in this thinking, Interviewing the new Chair of our local woodworker’s association, I was reminded of this theme when I asked how he came into woodworking. He told me his story about how his wife went to a wine convention and while she was away he decided to build a small wine box for her. He bought a few tools, built the box, and both of them were pleased with the result. So, he began to imagine other projects and bought more tools, and so on… and the workshop tool collection has continued to evolve ever since. I suspect that many woodworkers can tell a similar story.
Just before Christmas, we were able to purchase a new cabinet table saw to replace our aging contractor-grade unit, a piece of equipment that had gotten us as far as it could but reaching its limits of utility. It was a significant investment for a small firm like ours but the thought was that we would not have to make such an investment for a very long time – maybe never again. What we hadn’t counted on, perhaps, were the other supporting investments that this one might require. For example, because the format of the saw top was very different than the previous unit, nearly every related jig and appliance we owned was now useless. So, time, money and material gets invested in building a whole new collection of tools to support the one I just bought.
Now I am not complaining about building jigs – as you will know if you have ever read my four-part series on the Joy of Jigs. Anyway, it was great to be able to take my cross-cut sled to the next level. But it doesn’t end there. Having a new powerful saw means a new dust collection solution, a few new blades, maybe a new dado set – and let’s not forget a new built-in router insert (since the old one won’t fit the extension wing) and, oh yes, I can finally get one of those nice adjustable clamping units that fit right over that new fence. And, by the way, since adding the new table means I now have almost all I need to do another kind of project I’ve been considering, I might as well just fill in that gap, too by buying the remaining things to finish up.
Thankfully, some of the existing jigs and tools could simply be re-configured like my favourite box-joint jig (aka The Beast) that really only needed to have the miter slider moved by about an inch to fit where the slot is located in the new saw. I’ve no doubt, however, that in the coming months I will find even more absolutely invaluable complementary devices and supports to acquire that will ultimately eclipse and surpass the initial investment in the saw. It’s just one of those unwritten “laws” of shop evolution (tools beget tools) – and just maybe, a primitive instinct – for woodworkers everywhere.
We were delighted to be part of the first ever Surfside Studio Tour this past weekend – an event highlighting the artists and artisans of Highway 207 from Lawrencetown to Chezzetcook along Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore. With the prospect of a new studio event we decided to innovate on our approach to this year’s tour. Reflecting on our values led to our choice this year to focus on four C’s – customization, collections, collaboration, and classes. The results have been very positive.
Customization: Art, for the sake of art, has its place and we love to be innovative and to use various media to express our creative energies on a unique artistic project. But we sometimes, necessarily, forsake our love for true art in favour of production volumes to sustain the ongoing costs and effort of being an artist – and preferably not a starving one.
OK – so if I make an interesting doodad that a hundred people would like to have, then maybe I should make a hundred of them and sell to those who wish to have it. Moreover, I guess there is nothing wrong with a customer coming in and picking up one of a dozen similar turned pens or identical cutting boards if they really like them. What we were trying to get folks to consider this week is the notion of intentionality and personalization in buying items for themselves and others. We are always happy to have the challenge of a client saying “Well my friend, Jane, is such a fanatic about xxx – can you put something together for her?” and then working with that client to come up with the perfect item that may be a one-of-a-kind product specially made for that recipient. In many ways it just feels right in terms of our philosophy of sustainability, to make things that are purposefully made to support the interests or needs of a person rather than trying to convince them why they need this knick-knack that probably isn’t all that relevant.
Collections: Our ability to create mixed media and diverse items allows us to deliver a multi-faceted gift or multi-use package of items that serve a similar purpose or can celebrate a special event. A visitor to our open studio event has friends about to have their first baby. Seeking to find a great gift for their friend we suggested things like a custom baby quilt, a monogrammed baby bib, a hand-turned rattle, and a custom wooden mobile with various unique and colorful natural woods.
The mix of media skills we offer creates a one-stop shopping experience for that person and we anticipate her return to put together a package of gift items in a single purchase. Once again, we feel that this speaks to efficiency and sustainability and it feels good to present this idea as both an economical and environmentally responsible option.
Collaboration: We have many friends and colleagues with similar skills (and their own unique styles) in fabric and wood, but also others who work in different aspects of art & craft such as potters, jewellers, blacksmiths/ goldsmiths, photographers, stone carvers, to name a few.
This year we were able to match some of our own products with the work of Gary Dumas and Brad Holley in a special Asian-inspired collaboration. While our colleagues got additional exposure to a market they would not otherwise have been able to access, we were able to present the talents of two exceptional artisans to extend our collection and build our reputation for delivering high quality artisan creations.
Classes: The production of art and craft items is our primary line of business right now. But on its own it will not pay the bills of even a moderate shop like ours. Diversification of products and services is critical to our long-term survival. Although I feel the artisan and woodworker when I put on my apron, you just cannot take the educator out of someone who has been a teacher for any length of time, as Mary Elizabeth and I both have. This year we will leverage our educational background to offer one-on-one and small group training in the skills we have come to master. We are also hoping to launch a new YouTube channel with some short teaching pieces for specific projects and techniques. Based on our own custom patterns and plans, we think we can monetize the digital assets while offering some online instruction for free.
These four C’s really speak to a fifth one which is a favorite of ours – commissions. This is valuable as a revenue generation approach, but more importantly speaks to both our philosophy of sustainability, as well as our desire to get to know our clients more intimately – to develop deep relationships with Customerswho are the most important “C” of all.
In April, Mary Elizabeth addressed traditional technology in one of our Tech Talk blog posts. Her post focused on hand planes, one of Mary Elizabeth’s (and my) favorite tools. The typical woodworker has at least four or five unique purpose planes (flattening, smoothing, shaping, profiling, etc.) of varying sizes – some so distinct from another that it is hard to reckon them to be in the same class of tools.
I was making a pair of replica broadswords for my son and grandson this week and – after preliminary cutting and shaping – had to refine the angles and surfaces of the swords’ blades. The right tool for this, in my mind is the lowly spokeshave and so I reached for one of mine to help me with this task. Evolving from primitive shaping tools like the draw knife and scraper, and considered to be a form of hand plane, the spokeshave has been around for eons in one form or another. Like all hand planes, a spokeshave may have a cap iron and a frog, is set up against the work with a sole , and slices off fine shavings using a fixed position blade that goes through the body. For me, that’s about where the similarities end.
I find that the spokeshave is much more versatile wherever practical, and, moreover, more tactile than typical flat-sole hand planes. This is in part because the motion is a pulling one using a set of handles at the side of the body (of course, there are many other planes that use a pulling motion). The sole may be flat, convex or concave depending on its function but, in either case, it takes practice to get the shave to address the surface for optimum effect. It also takes (and gives) a feel for the wood and the grain that is very special. When you have addressed the grain and surface well, long thin shavings feed out from the mouth of the unit with consistent dimensions, and the wood surface takes on a beautiful smoothness that is often ready for finish without any additional sanding or other surface preparation. The feel of that spokeshave slicing through the wood (as felt through those winged handles) is like no other tool I know.
Bill Howe’s presentation to the Atlantic Woodworkers’ Association in April inspired me to think about and use the spokeshave more and so I find I am increasingly going to it in projects of this nature – not only because it is an effective tool, but also because the feel of working with a spokeshave is extremely gratifying. For me there is also a sense that I am working with an ages-old technology/ tool using traditional techniques – and that, in itself, is certainly appealing.
In the current project, this sense of building and preserving tradition is even more enhanced since what I am making is a traditional weapon that dates back to the 6th century and which endured for centuries. The broadsword was used in battle by medieval knights and was considered one of the knight’s most prized assets. For training and tournaments, rebated (blunted) and wooden swords were used to limit injury and so there must have been a time when wooden swords like this were being made to closely replicate the look and feel of their iron counterparts. I can imagine some 11th century woodsmith or swordsmith sitting down to a similar task with a spokeshave or draw knife to carve those same sword facets for a Lancelot or a Galahad.
Anon, with spokeshave at hand, I must away to this labor of love.
In my last post, I described my learning style and I promised to blog my progress as I explore a new technique through a new artistic production. The idea is to reflect on my learning process to see how it evolves and how it impacts development of my skills as an artisan.
The Nova Scotia Community College, which currently funds my dream of a post-retirement life as full-time woodworker/ artisan, promotes a pedagogy of portfolio learning. This model places equal emphasis on student reflection on learning Continue reading The Art of Learning→
Why do we do it? Why do art and craft entrepreneurs put their products and reputation out there in the marketplace? Business objectives are different for each business owner, I guess, but some would seem more important than others. But how important is profit as an objective compared to other – perhaps more altruistic – objectives?
As a web application developer around the start of the 21st century, I recall the beginning of the e-commerce era as being one of extremely complex and technical development. I developed and taught e-commerce/ e-marketing programs at Holland College and Nova Scotia Community College from about 1998 through 2003 when the depth of technical knowledge that both developers and business owners needed to implement e-commerce was substantial, often prohibitively so for small craft businesses like ours. Continue reading Tech Tuesday: Selling Art & Crafts Online→
In an earlier post we mentioned that we had bought a laser engraver from Gearbest – our first – to supplement some of the work in our shop, notably things like small engraving tasks and marking cuts for the band saw and scroll saw. Now that we have it together, I thought it might be a good time to bring you up to speed on our success (and challenges) to date. Continue reading Tech Tuesday: The Laser→